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Find a Way to Make Yourself Useful
Hello, and welcome back to The Action Cookbook Newsletter.
If I’ve counted right, this is the 600th edition of the ACBN since I launched it four years ago. I’m so grateful that you—yes, you!—have made it possible for me to reach this milestone. I couldn’t keep this newsletter going without the support that your paid subscriptions provide. If you’re not a paid subscriber, please consider becoming one today!
As previously announced, I will be taking a two-week break following this Friday’s newsletter, so that I can be fully present during a long-awaited vacation with my family. Since that means I’ll be gone in the lead-up to Father’s Day, I’m giving you my Father’s Day newsletter today.
If you enjoy it, please pass it on to someone else who you think might also enjoy it!
I’ve got plenty of great things queued up for the second half of June and the second half of 2023, and I hope you’ll be here for them; the ACBN is a better place with you around.
Now, on to today’s newsletter.
“Find a way to make yourself useful.”
The voice—my own—rang in my head, exhorting me to do something. As a father, the moments after the birth of your first child are an incomparable joy, but they’re also absolutely terrifying. There’s a crisis going on, and you’re not at the center of it. You’re not the first responder, either. You bear a significant share of the responsibility for the situation, to be sure, but right here, in the moment?
You’re just kind of in the way.
I have never felt as useless in my life as I felt in the days and weeks after the birth of my son. That’s saying a lot, too—I’ve been useless plenty in my life. But this wasn’t just me being bad at a job, deadweight in batting order, or fifth-chair clarinet in middle school band; this was me being existentially useless at what was supposed to be the most important time in my life.
When the baby would cry, it wasn’t for me—and if it was, it was only to say hey, you—figure out where my Mom is. She could feed him, comfort him, feel like home to him. I would do my best at consoling him, but I was terrified, and I’m pretty sure he knew it.
Babies can’t do much, but they can sniff out when you don’t know what you’re doing.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: being a mother is exceptionally hard.
Society saddles moms with impossible expectations—you’re supposed to be loving but firm, fun but disciplined, spontaneous but scheduled, organized in every possible way and prepared for any situation that might arise. Oh, and you’re supposed to look well-rested and happy about it at every moment, lest you be labeled an ingrate.
In comparison? Being a Dad is easy.
Therein lies the curse, though—low expectations.
There’s a popular image of dads that’s endured even as traditional roles have softened. The archetypal sitcom dad, a bumbling, fumbling oaf who can’t cook, won’t clean, doesn’t know how to braid hair and certainly doesn’t know how to deal with emotions. He knows power tools, but when feelings are involved? Better call mom.
This image is summed up hilariously in a bit from stand-up comedian Nate Bargatze, who recalls receiving a call from his daughter’s school:
At the end of the school day, someone from the school called my cell phone. They have my wife’s cell phone and they have my cell phone. So they called my cell phone, and they said “hey, do you know what bus number your daughter is supposed to be on?”
And I said “I’m her dad.”
When my son was born, an older manager at work openly scoffed at the two weeks of PTO that I exhausted in one swoop—we didn’t have paternal leave—and proudly recalled how when his daughter was born, he was back at work by lunch that day.
(I bit my tongue instead of telling him that it sounded like he was as good a father as he was a manager. I don’t work there anymore, and I regret the missed opportunity.)
He might’ve been an extreme outlier, but there’s no denying that I often get credit for doing the bare minimum—for doing the things I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve never been more handsome or likeable than when I walked around a grocery store with a baby strapped to me, and even now people are willing to help me in stores simply because I’m shopping with my kids. (Sometimes even if they don’t work there.)
It’s a bit much.
I had no idea what to do those first few weeks after getting home from the hospital, and I was plagued by my own uselessness. I’d try to help out with the overnight feedings, but usually this just meant getting up and bringing the baby over to my wife. I was delirious for lack of sleep, and I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to be doing when I was awake. I was frustrated and angry, but mostly at myself—I felt like I was failing the biggest test of my lifetime, the only test that had ever really mattered.
And still, on the moments I was out, I’d be praised for being with my kid. I was haunted by the sense that I was stealing valor, like someone wearing war medals they’d bought at a yard sale and pretending they were their own.
At a certain point, you have to decide what kind of Dad you’re going to be.
You can be the Funny Dad, always ready with a quip, a bad pun or a funny noise.
You can be the Sports Dad, ready to teach a kid how to swing a baseball bat, golf club or tennis racket as soon as they’re standing on two feet.
You can be the Outdoors Dad, hiking up a mountain pass with a toddler bouncing along in a frame on your shoulders, heating up a bottle over a fire you built with twigs and a piece of flint.
You can be the Cooking Dad, who’s going to develop a complex palate on these kids as soon as he can figure out how to puree smoked meat.
The Fix-It Dad. The Fishing Dad. The Horseplay Dad, or the Car Dad. The Cool Dad, who’s got you listening to Joy Division instead of Baby Shark, or The War Dad, who can frame any playground disagreement in terms of notable battles of World War II.
There’s a lot of options.
They’re all good places to start. They’re fun, and—if approached properly—they can be good ways to connect with your children as they grow, opportunities to share with them something about yourself beyond the “I guess he likes ties?” iconography of so many Father’s Day cards.
Ultimately, though, these paths are about you, and not them. There needs to be more.
I have a nightmarishly bad singing voice.
This isn’t false modesty; it’s the objective truth. I have no concept of pitch, tone, melody—heck, I’m not even sure those are the right terms. I know so little about music that I don’t know what I don’t know.
But one late night in the rocking chair, I started singing.
It might’ve been 3am, or it might’ve been 8:15pm. I don’t know, and I’ll never know; in those early months, it all feels like 3am. I was bone-tired, and so was he; I wished he knew how to sleep, and so did he. I rocked and rocked; while every other muscle in my body seemed to be atrophying, my calves were like blocks of granite from rocking and bouncing. I pulled up a song on Spotify—I think it was Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, or Stephen Sondheim’s “Our Time”—and started singing along softly. I was off-key and as tone-deaf as ever.
He fell asleep on me, and I kept rocking there in the dark—exhausted, terrified, and feeling like I’d just won a tremendous victory.
For most jobs, showing up every day is half the battle. In fatherhood, it’s more like ninety percent. Just show up, and see what you’re needed for today. Supporting the head will get you through the first four months. After that, it’s different every day. Carry them when their little legs get tired, even if you know they’re not actually tired and just want to be carried. Make up a song when they’re upset, and make up a second one when the first one upsets them more. Heal an injury with a kiss, and if that doesn’t work, do the rubbing-your-hands-together-really-fast-until-they’re-hot thing from The Karate Kid. (It still works.) Listen when they’re explaining to you the lore of another incomprehensible game. Throw a ball with them, and try not to look like it hurt when they throw it back right into your groin.
It’s a reactive job, and it’s one that is impossible to be perfect at, because it’ll be different tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Something that works suddenly won’t, and something that never made sense finally will. It’s a tough job, but it’s the best one I’ve ever had, and you get the hang of it eventually.
You just have to find a way to make yourself useful.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)